The national debt, now above $14 trillion, is equal to about 95 percent of our GDP. That’s up from 51 percent in 1988. Now every man, woman and child living in the United States owes nearly $50,000. The debt keeps accelerating as the federal government borrows about forty cents of every dollar it spends.
Only a few short decades ago, the Republicans held the line on both tax and spending increases. When the people wanted fiscal responsibility they sent in the Republicans. When they wanted expansion, they replaced them with Democrats.
The Democrats were the party of the accelerator and the Republicans the party of the break pedal. When both performed their expected roles the system worked pretty well. Now we have two accelerator parties. The Republicans are single-mindedly determined to speed things up by cutting taxes, the Democrats by the stimulus of spending.
The debt, caused by irresponsible tax cuts at a time of unsustainable spending, has resulted in a burden of interest payments that restrains the economy like driving with the emergency break on. As the engine struggles, the smell of trouble from under the hood is unmistakable.
Why aren’t the drivers paying attention? Well, they say they are, but they don’t act like it. Recently, House Speaker Boehner made it clear that in confronting the debt, no tax increases were acceptable to him and his fellow Republicans. In a related comment, House Minority Leader Pelosi said the Democrats were locked in against any change in the structure of Medicare.
With no changes, Medicare is on a collision course with insolvency by 2024. Real change in many government programs will have to be made to save them. Some will have to be reduced, some eliminated. Along with the necessary spending cuts, the inequitable Bush tax cuts will also need to be revisited. This is all anathema to the true believers in both parties, the Tea Party ideologues intimidating Boehner from the right, and the “gimme” groups pulling Pelosi’s strings from the left.
A political process can only deliver change when there is compromise. No compromise is necessary in a totalitarian state, where only one idea prevails. Where people are free, however, there are competing interests, and change must be worked out among them. The alternative to peaceful change by working within the system is violent change from outside it.
The United States has been the world’s great and shining example of the freedom, stability and opportunity that comes from a government by the consent of the governed. It would be sad indeed if we self-destructed because we couldn’t function within our own system.
Hammering out workable solutions in a democracy is never easy. But while core principles cannot be compromised, mere differences of opinion can be. Effective leaders know the difference. We want our politicians to be principled, but they can’t do their job standing (or perhaps hiding) behind some philosophical line in the sand rather than risking to step forward toward a solution. Hopefully the shadow of the looming economic crises will motivate critically necessary stepping across the line.
Churchill once joked that Americans always arrive at the right decision after they have exhausted all other options. If avoidance, denial, and delay are options we have certainly exhausted them. We are nearing a critical time in our nation’s history. We have to accept change and sacrifice. Americans have the foresight to know this and are tough enough to accept it. What we don’t know is if those in the driver’s seat are.
Former Montana Secretary of State